Finger Flexion Redux

A friend of mine once had a college professor who had a special term for scare quotes—“prophylactic quotes,” he called them. That’s a little clunky, but it does get to the heart of what scare quotes do; we use them when we want to insulate ourselves from the meaning or emotion that might be attached to a particular word. David Foster Wallace‘s story “All That,” published in last week’s New Yorker, is something of a study on prophylactic quoting: The narrator, who was once (and may still be) a seminarian, looks back at a handful of incidents in his life to figure out where his interest in religion started. In the process, various critical terms get placed into scare quotes, to better emphasize just how lost he is: “magic,” “reverence,” “religious,” “reality.”

As a grammar obsessive and good postmodernist, Wallace was exceedingly concerned with vocabulary; Infinite Jest is filled with italicized words, both as emphasis in conversation and to call specific terms out for special attention. “Is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though,” one character asks in the middle of one of the novel’s wargames. It’s a risky style: Do it too often, and readers will start thinking you’re a show-off, and the New York Times will publish snide features about you questioning your sincerity. But though I count myself among the many people who sometimes felt he had his time wasted by Wallace’s fiction, I never wondered whether he meant it—if anything, he seemed to be working overly hard to get at the truth of something. Studying scare quotes is a good way to get at questions of meaning and sincerity, and “All That” isn’t the first time he tinkered with it. A post by Ken Vanko reminded me that Wallace’s 1999 story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men includes a satirical transcript of a conversation (presumably from some kind of intake center), in which the transcriptionist marks points where the interviewee used “flexion of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes.” There are so many of these points that the exasperated transcriptionist shortens the term to “finger flexion” and later just “f.f.” The device clarifies just how unhinged the speaker is:

My manner has now changed, somewhat, to a more commanding, authoritative demeanor. But not creepy and not threatening. Some subjects have professed to see it as {f.f.} menacing, but I can assure you no menace is intended. What is being communicated now is a certain authoritative command based solely on contractual experience as I inform the subject that I am going to {no f.f.} instruct her.

“All That” is finger flexion without the satire or the creepiness, scare quotes without the joking. If anything, they expose the narrator’s genuine feelings of terror; what’s provoked his worry isn’t clear, but it’s obvious he’s working through a serious crisis of faith. In the second half of the story, as it becomes more obvious how unstable the narrator feels, the scare quotes pile up:

Probably one reason that I fall automatically into the urge to “argue for” the voices’ “reality” is that my “real” parents, though they were wholly tolerant of my believing in the voices, obviously viewed them as the same sort of “invisible friend” fantasies I mentioned above.

And that passage is set in parentheses—in this context, scare quotes over passage full of scare quotes. “All That” is a section from The Pale King, Wallace’s final novel. It’s always unfair to attach the emotional concerns of a fictional character to the emotional concerns of the author; the best writers can separate the two. But the context of the story’s publication is unavoidable, and though the story would be just as strong were Wallace still alive, reading it now there’s an added pathos now to the way he turned a postmodern device into a deeply earnest statement, a cry for help.

3 thoughts on “Finger Flexion Redux

  1. I think this is a nicely articulated summary of what DFW might’ve been trying to do with this motif— but I’m not sure that the context is “unavoidable” as you put it towards the end of your post. It’s possible, without knowing anything about the man, to see through his work that he was highlighting something about the way people feel and act and speak today, while at the same time exploring ways in which literature that’s attempting to be redemptive but also faithful to everyday voices might be affected by these conditions.

    I suppose all I’m saying is I’d be wary of saying that parts of his writing were a ‘cry for help’ when it seems from Infinite Jest at least that he locates the problems regarding heartfelt communication and authentic emotions today in the cultural and social realms.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  2. Completely agree with the cry for help. I reread his Kenyon commencement speech and his mention of suicide and shooting in the head (the ‘master’). Wallace’s inner voices must have been screaming way too loudly and his only option, i guess, was to silence them all.

    Enjoyed your review man, thanks!

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